Drop Everything and Sail the World

Blog Series, Learning, Smart Parents

Jeff grew up in old Africa, out in the bush, where the lions still roared and the elephants roamed. The fenceless wild brought unexpected adventures, like answering a knock at the back door and finding a man with his daughter standing there, an arrow sticking out of her left shoulder. He helped his dad saw off the arrow tip, and watched as his dad pulled the arrow out, pack the wound with ointment, and bandage her up.

Years later Jeff found himself the father of three boys and living in suburbia. The most adventure his kids had was playing video games. Jeff and his wife, Gail, decided to do something about it and hatched a plan to find a new frontier to explore. They risked everything to not lose the most important things.

The psychologist sold his practice, his house, and everything he owned and bought a sailboat. Jeff’s and Gail’s families were shocked. They didn’t even know how to sail. They prepared as best they could in classroom settings, then it was time to “just do it.” They spent a few weeks at the dock getting to know the aging sailboat and working up the courage to set sail.

The sailboat, RiverWind, was candy-apple red, and they sometimes fondly called it the Little Red School House. Gail developed an overlapping curriculum for the boys aged 4, 9, and 12. Two years of school for three students each covered six grades. They often studied in the morning, and explored an island and a foreign culture in the afternoon. School included the basics, and also responded to the students’ curiosity. They learned to identify tropical fish and learned about their habitats. One student compiled a report about sharks and taught the rest of the family how to identify them and which ones needed to be avoided. They studied the weather, listening daily to the local forecast. They learned how to communicate via radio with the proper etiquette. The students kept journals recording their impressions of an island, a culture, a new friend. The youngest learned to multiply and divide by six by observing the depth finder changing from feet to fathoms. They studied the night sky and learned constellations. Their imagination was kindled and grew with hours of exploration, free time, and play.

Everyone had responsibilities on the boat. Real jobs, not token ones. If someone didn’t do his part, the safety of the crew and vessel were at stake. The boys learned skills, thoroughness, and gained responsibility. At the age of 12, the oldest was able to stand his own watch at night while underway. They helped save two sailboats that were sinking, in the first two weeks of their journey. They gave their toys away to children who had lost everything in a hurricane.

They traveled together for 18 months so the boys missed two school years. Returning to a traditional school was tough for the boys, but the experience had a lasting impact. Their oldest son wrote a high school essay titled, “I’d rather do stuff than have stuff.”

Sixteen years later, the young men have the heart of an adventurer. They are life-long learners, and know how to access resources to learn what they want. Jeff and Gail don’t know how their sons would be different if they hadn’t gone sailing, but they do know their family was forever changed. It was a watershed event–before the boat, after the boat. Jeff and Gail said, “We didn’t go sailing to escape life. We went sailing so that life wouldn’t escape us.”

Mission possible. Sailing the world may seems like an impossible dream for you and your family but with the connected, quantified, anytime anywhere world, it’s more possible to do what seemed impossible a few years ago. It’s time to expand your thinking about what you can accomplish and, in doing so, the life lessons you will model and create for your children.

Here’s a list of 15 things you could do that would set a great example for your kids:

  1. Travel the world with your family–by air, train, and caravan like the Silverman family.
  2. Learn a language using Rosetta Stone, Middlebury Interactive, or Duolingo.
  3. Learn to code by attending a coding bootcamp.
  4. Take a MOOC and earn a certificate on Coursera or Udacity.
  5. Climb one of the 89 fourteeners like Mt Rainier in Washington, or all 53 in Colorado.
  6. Run a marathon, or a half marathon, or stretch and try a triathlon.
  7. Start a business (see Daniel’s story).
  8. Learn a musical instrument and learn to play your favorite song or a symphony (check out this RadioLab story about a guy that just had to write a symphony).
  9. Start a blog.
  10. Start a school (20 families will be opening Acton Academy schools this fall, see the backstory on microschools).
  11. Create a family non-profit, lead a service project, or go on a mission trip.
  12. Build something: a dog house, a shed, or a house!
  13. Try a new activity such as geocaching, which masterfully combines the outdoors, technology, learning, and physical activity.
  14. Teach a class or lead a lecture in your community.
  15. That one thing you’ve always wanted to do but have been putting off.

Be a #SmartParent. Get off your butt and do it! Your kids are watching.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is author of Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and Learn Capital and serves on the boards of 4.0 Schools, eduInnovation, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners and Bloomboard. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.